The Secrets (2007)

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Naomi, the brilliant and pious daughter of an ultra orthodox rabbi finds herself at a crossroads of life choices when her mother dies and she is expected to immediately marry her father’s prodigy. Distressed yet determined, she begs that her father allow her one year to study at a women’s religious seminary in Safed, the birthplace of the Kabala in order to prepare herself for the sacrifices she will make as a wife. Her father relents and Naomi’s life begins to take an unexpected turn. Devote but lively, Naomi and her new friend Michelle befriend a beautiful, mysterious older woman, Anouk (Fanny Ardant) who is ill and living nearby who may or may not be Jewish, and may have committed a crime of passion. Naomi devises a series of rituals which will somehow “purify” Anouk and purge her of her sins, but as these stretch the borders of Jewish law they must be kept secret. Eventually this journey into the forbidden leads to a growing attraction between the two girls and more crossroads are faced.
The Secrets presents the complexities of a religious lifestyle in a vibrant environment of youth, rebellion and desire.

Genre: Foreign, Drama
Director: Avi Nesher
Cast: Fanny Ardant, Ania Bukstein, Michal Shtamler
In theaters: November 28, 2008

“When Faith Meets Feminism” by Stephen Holden

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from “The New York Times”, published:  November 26, 2008

Naomi (Ania Bukstein), the stubborn heroine of “The Secrets,” a religious soap opera and feminist cri de coeur, is the brilliant, beautiful, headstrong daughter of a revered Orthodox Israeli rabbi (Sefi Rivlin). Exceptionally well schooled in Jewish law, she is the pride and joy of her father to the degree that she has shed no tears over the recent death of her chronically depressed mother.

At first, the movie, directed by the Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher from a screenplay he wrote with Hadar Galron, a London-born feminist playwright, actress and Orthodox Jew, is a sober exploration of limited female opportunities in a rigidly patriarchal environment. But after two French characters, one played by the great French actress Fanny Ardant, are introduced, the movie becomes an intriguing, occasionally discordant hybrid of austere Israeli and voluptuous French filmmaking traditions. Although the story remains in Israel, in spirit the movie migrates from the Middle East to France before returning to Israel for a pat, feel-good ending.

As the film begins, Naomi entreats her father to postpone her coming marriage to his sour, self-righteous protégé Michael (Guri Alfi) so she can pursue her religious studies at a seminary for women in Safed, the birthplace of the Kabbalah. Her distant dream is one day to become the first female Orthodox rabbi in a culture in which the men smugly dismiss women’s conversations as “idle chat.”

For as long as she is the apple of her father’s eye, Naomi feels valued within the Orthodox Jewish environment and entertains the possibility that it holds a place for her beyond one of blind subservience to male authority.

Once Naomi enters the seminary, whose sympathetic headmistress shares her dream but advises patience, “The Secrets” steadily metamorphoses into a romantic tearjerker. Naomi’s arrogance and rigidity begin to break down when she forms a friendship with Michelle (Michal Shtamler), a sullen, chain-smoking Parisian student who is one of her three roommates.

Their initially embattled relationship abruptly changes after the two are assigned to take food to Anouk (Ms. Ardant), a dying woman with a scandalous past who lives near the seminary.

A gaunt, raven-haired pariah, Anouk spent 15 years in prison for killing her lover, an Israeli painter for whom she had abandoned her husband and two children and whom she followed to Israel. When she shows Naomi and Michelle some of her lover’s erotic paintings in which she is the subject, the young women turn away their heads. To them the notion of a woman’s abandoning herself to such passion is almost inconceivable.

Anouk, who is not Jewish, insists the homicide was not premeditated but an act of self-defense. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, she begs Naomi and Michelle to lead her through a series of Kabbalistic cleansing rites that are available only to Jews.

Naomi secretly consults sacred texts to justify performing the rites, which involve a fair amount of physical self-mortification. As Anouk’s strength ebbs, their sessions with her become a spiritual rescue mission with a deadline.

While Michelle visits Naomi during the Jewish holidays, the two friends almost accidentally become lovers. Naomi, consulting sacred texts, determines there is no law against lesbian love, that homosexuality is taboo only for men, who spill their seed.

As “The Secrets” softens its focus, moving away from cultural barriers and becoming a star-crossed love story in which Michelle is torn between Naomi and a kind-hearted klezmer clarinetist (Adir Miller), it risks becoming mawkish. But the passionate performances of Ms. Bukstein, Ms. Shtamler and Ms. Ardant lend “The Secrets” enough emotional solidity to prevent it from entirely dissolving in the suds.

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